Today, in my Easiest Helicopter To Fly review, i’ll be discussing the safest helicopter in the world and helicopter flying. My journey to flying in an autonomous helicopter starts in the back of a Winnebago. The Sikorsky Innovations team has taken an RV and turned it into a “mobile ground station” for the autonomous helicopter, which is called SARA (Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft). Up front are computers and giant screens where Sikorsky Innovations employees can make changes to the helicopter’s software on the fly. They can monitor and control SARA from here in real time, though the team is careful to point out that the helicopter doesn’t need the RV to operate.
SARA is a self-contained research vehicle, chief pilot and development lead Mark Ward explains. It’s wrapped in a gradient of dark blue (in the front) to light blue (in the back), and it’s also splashed with computer circuitry graphics, which provide the only hint from the outside that something is different about this helicopter. At 43 feet long, it can normally fit 12 passengers, and it’s often used to fly CEOs. Behind the cockpit, this version has been gutted and outfitted with the brains that run the Matrix tech.
SARA uses LIDAR sensors and computer vision to measure the ground beneath it or detect nearby objects that present a threat. But SARA doesn’t rely as much on “high-order” functions like AI since those are harder to certify. (“To be FAA certifiable, you need a certain level of determinism in the outcomes,” Van Buiten says.)
IF YOU WISH TO FLY SIKORSKY’S AUTONOMOUS HELICOPTER, YOU MUST FIRST START IN A WINNEBAGO
In the back of the Winnebago is the flight simulator. It consists of a giant flat panel television, a chair, a tablet, and two “inceptors”: a joystick on my right, and a lever to my left, which are both 3D-printed. Running on Linux, the custom-built software shows me a map (both on the screen and on the tablet) of the surrounding area and a digital representation of SARA.
Ward, who will play my copilot in the real helicopter, walks me through the user interface the team has developed for the autonomy system. I’m told I’ll use the tablet to direct SARA to autonomously take off and land and also to load a 15-minute flight plan that the team has already cleared with air traffic control. I also learn that I’ll use those inceptors to manipulate the autonomous flight and, at a few different points, to fly the helicopter myself.
During the simulation, Ward runs me through how to use the inceptors. In a normal helicopter, you control flight three ways: the “cyclic,” or the stick, is used to move forward, backward, or side to side; the “collective,” a bar on the side of the pilot’s seat, controls altitude; and pedals at the feet rotate the helicopter.
SARA USES LIDAR AND OPTICAL SENSORS, BUT IT DOESN’T RELY ON FANCY AI TO FLY
The inceptors don’t directly adjust any physical controls. Instead, they’re taking my inputs and telling the Matrix software where I want to go, and the computer translates that to the flight controls. Push right on the joystick inceptor, and the helicopter will drift to the right at whatever speed I choose. Pull back on the lever inceptor, and we’ll climb until I let go. Roll the thumb wheel on the lever inceptor, spin SARA.
safest helicopter in the world
When the helicopter is in the middle of autonomously following a flight plan, I’ll also be able to use the inceptors to briefly move off the path. When I let go, the autonomous system will readjust and guide us back.
It’s all meant to be so simple that I should be able to figure it out without much instruction, which is essentially the opposite of what it takes to learn to fly a regular helicopter. So when Ward asks me how I think I should change my airspeed, and I say “push forward on the joystick inceptor,” his face lights up and he claps his hands together, letting out a long “yesss.”
What’s clear almost immediately is that while making a helicopter that can fly itself is understandably hard, the task of developing this “human-machine interface,” or HMI as Ward calls it, seems equally daunting.
Ward’s team built the HMI from the ground up. He loves this because it gives the team free rein to design it the way they like. If he doesn’t like the size of a particular UI element, for example, the team can change it in a matter of minutes. Or if they want to make a change to the inceptors, they can do that, too. (Ward says they’ve tried “some weird stuff,” including trying to fly using a drafting mouse.) “If we were working with a third party, anything like that would take weeks,” he says.
There are many obvious choices Ward and the Sikorsky Innovations team had to make when developing this HMI from scratch. He explains a few. They decided not to allow pinch-to-zoom interactions on the tablet like in Google Maps, he says, because that could lead to “spurious inputs,” which is official speak for careless taps. The main way to direct the helicopter to fly somewhere autonomously is to pull up a widget — “the daddy of all widgets,” Ward calls it — and drag it to the point on the map where you want to go.
“THE DADDY OF ALL WIDGETS.”
This widget lets you set ground speed, altitude, or simply command the helicopter to take off and settle into a hover. Once you set all of the desired parameters, you tap a box at the top of the tablet screen that says “READY TO EXECUTE.” You can use the widget to set a “fly to” point on the map, and the helicopter will take the simplest, safest route there, constantly scanning its surroundings to make sure nothing gets in the way. Or you can load pre-calculated flight plans.
Each of these corners of the UI represents dozens of decisions made by Ward and his team. He says the FAA sets guidelines for HMIs, right down to font size and color, so they do have some constraints. But otherwise, the interface represents a world of opportunity. Sikorsky is not only trying to make helicopters that can fly themselves, but it’s also thinking a lot about the humans who will still be in the cockpit for many years to come.
“All the fancy autonomy algorithms happening in the background, they’re very, very hard to do, don’t get me wrong,” Ward says. “But the HMI is really hard.”
It’s because of all this work that I won’t have to touch the cyclic, the collective, or the pedals. I won’t have to do any hard work. This is why I never wind up running into the situation Van Buiten, the vice president, warned me about a few hours before. The one where I die.
Easiest Helicopter To Fly
It’sIt’s finally time to fly the helicopter. Ward runs through a preflight checklist, where I learn we won’t bother with parachutes. We walk out onto the tarmac under a bright, clear blue sky, one day removed from gale-force winds. I get a typical safety briefing, where Ward demonstrates how to operate locks on the helicopter doors that are straight from a 1970s-era Ford van. I should be nervous, but I’m not. The day-long pitch about the work that Sikorsky’s done to get this tech to its current state has been effective. It also helps that at the same moment, a replica Marine One is taking off across the airfield. Reliability is sort of the company’s whole thing.
I hop into the cockpit, and Ward starts tapping buttons and flipping switches. We’re in a helicopter that’s about to fly itself, but it’s clear that the preflight preparations haven’t been automated yet. But before I know it, we’ve taxied out to the center of the company’s private airfield, and the little box at the top of the tablet strapped to my leg says “READY TO EXECUTE.”
NO PARACHUTES? NO PROBLEM
The S-76, a workhorse of Sikorsky’s fleet that weighs nearly 3 tons and cost millions of dollars to build, lifts gently off the asphalt. The helicopter climbs up into the blue sky to 60 feet and stops; it’s now holding steady in a one-foot by one-foot by one-foot box we told the computer to find. It jostles a bit — keeping a dynamic aircraft like this in one spot is tough, even for an advanced computer — but we’re hovering calmly above the runway.
Ward gives me a minute to get used to the sensitivity of the inceptors. He tells me to move the helicopter a few hundred feet to our right over the runway number and to point the nose to the south. I tilt the joystick a few degrees, roll the wheel on the lever to my left, and we glide over the pavement. In one fluid movement — and on my first try — I pull off a move that would have taken countless hours to learn and a lot more nerve if I were using the helicopter’s usual controls.
We play around over the airfield a bit longer before Ward has me plug in our planned autonomous flight. He slips in a Star Trek joke (“make it so”) as I tap the tablet again to send us on our trip. The helicopter turns, slowly, and then starts to bring us up over the Housatonic River toward the first waypoint, which is to our east.
The second waypoint is a few hundred feet higher and a few thousand feet farther north along the river, so the helicopter banks to the left and continues to climb. Ward asks me if I think the tuning of the helicopter’s turns is a bit aggressive; I say yes, but then again, you always seem to notice the dynamics of a vehicle more when you’re not in control.
The helicopter keeps bringing us north, and Ward has me try using the inceptors to break off the path a bit. I bank us to the left a few hundred feet, then ease off the joystick. The helicopter rights itself, then points its nose back toward our final destination. Like that, it’s already recalculated the best way to get there.
FLYING THE HELICOPTER IS SURPRISINGLY EASY, AND IT REMINDS ME OF THE WONKAVATOR
While all of this is happening, dozens of blue dots — some big, some small — pop up and then disappear on the map on the tablet. Ward is obviously along for the ride in case anything goes wrong, but if something goes really wrong, the helicopter is always finding safe places to land. Each blue dot on the map represents a spot where the computer has decided we can land in an emergency. I flash back to earlier in the morning, when Van Buiten told me that Sikorsky has tested how the autonomous system handles emergency landings and how they found it gets them right more consistently than even the best pilots.
Once we reach the final waypoint, Ward picks out another spot in the distance (a teal building poking out through the trees) and asks me to fly us to it. Again, I’m able to pull off the maneuver as if I’ve been doing this for years. It’s like flying a consumer drone you can sit in without having to worry about small wind gusts or battery life.
I’ve taken some wild rides in my time with The Verge, but this one is almost placid — though I’m struck by how similar it feels to the final scene of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, where Charlie Bucket and Wonka ride the Wonkavator through the roof and up into a big blue sky. (Maybe this is why Sikorsky made that commercial with Otis.) By the time I punch in the command that tells the helicopter to take us back to the airfield, my only thought is that I wish I could have gone rogue and taken us on a much longer joy ride.
TheThe helicopter lands itself without a hitch. The broad strokes of the technology are very obviously in place. Now comes the hard part.
There are a few obvious challenges ahead. One, Sikorsky now has to validate this tech to the point that it satisfies a wide number of potential customers and regulatory bodies. The good news there is that Sikorsky has decades of experience doing just that.
“We are willing to do the un-fun, mind-numbing work of making [Matrix] highly reliable, and robust and redundant and able to sustain failures — multiple failures — and still work,” Van Buiten says. He never mentions any of the competitors in this space by name, even though there are quite a few. Bell, Boeing-owned Aurora Flight Sciences, SkyRyse, and even Uber are among the companies exploring autonomous flight. “I think there’s some flash out there that is not pursuing the same level of rigor,” he says. “We have the appetite for that rigor.”
SIKORSKY MADE A HELICOPTER THAT FLIES ITSELF, BUT NOW COMES THE HARD PART
Another challenge is finding customers, though Sikorsky already has some in mind. Van Buiten says the tech has “a lot of potential in Black Hawk,” the helicopter Sikorsky makes for the US Army. In fact, he says, the company is going to perform autonomous Black Hawk test flights this year. Military settings might make a lot of sense for this technology, whether it’s used to safely shuttle cargo or for taking the strain off of pilots who are flying high-stress missions.
Van Buiten says he also sees the tech spreading to more of Sikorsky’s commercial fleet beyond the S-76, and that it could even translate to other types of aircraft. “The technology is similar, and the helicopter problem is harder,” he says.
It’s easy to imagine Sikorsky’s tech becoming the backbone of an autonomous taxi service someday, but, if anything, my ride with SARA reminded me of how far away a use case like that might actually be. Sikorsky should be able to validate the tech to the point that it can consistently operate in highly specific settings, like in the military, or as an assist to highly trained pilots in more commercial settings.
But proving it out to the point that we feel comfortable putting our families in it for a short ride from a city center to the airport or wherever else flying taxis might go, requires a whole other level of certainty.
“The burden of responsibility — the same burden we’ve carried for decades with people who fly in our products — is now going to go up by, it’s almost two orders of magnitude,” Van Buiten says before my flight. “We’ve got to create a completely new exceptional standard for safety, and we think the autonomy that you’re going to fly today gets us there.
How to Buy a Private Helicopter: 5 Things You Need to Know When You Are Buying a Private Helicopter
There are many benefits of owning a helicopter, including getting to work on time when living 100 miles (ca. 161 km) away from your office. The main advantage of owning a helicopter is freedom. Once you have permission and some space, you can set your course for any destination.
- Will You Be the Pilot or the Passenger?
- Predetermine Your Budget
- How Far Will You Travel?
- Other Considerations
A private owner in the United Kingdom can fly to Devon and back to London without stopping to refuel. A pub in Oxford, the Manson’s Arms, has a helipad. The photographs of helicopters that visit adorn the walls of the pub. It is a thrilling and bizarre place to visit.
Modern helicopters have engines that are quieter and more efficient with advanced glass cockpits that offer fewer distractions for pilots. Airbus Helicopters’ Ed Sale responded to GQ at the Elite London event giving insight into what to consider when buying a private helicopter.
1. Will You Be the Pilot or the Passenger?
The majority of helicopter owners are pilots so they can fly themselves. Private pilots and those who own a helicopter and fly themselves prefer hands-on, less bulky designs.
Bigger helicopters are usually reserved for professional pilots while the owners sit in the back. The big shots use this as their executive means of transport. Midrange helicopters have administrative abilities too but are fun to handle.
The bigger the aircraft, the more experience a pilot requires. A well-trained amateur can fly any of the Robinson chopper models. The same applies to the B3 and B4 Eurocopter Ecureuil, AgustaWestland Koala and Bell 407. If you are looking at bigger models, like the AgustaWestland A109 with more sophisticated instrumentation, you will need a professional pilot.
If planning to become a pilot, next choose a flying school. Lots of flying schools will issue Private Pilot Licenses PPLs(H). Ask friends with helicopters to recommend a good flying school.
It helps if the flying school is local to you as you need a minimum of 45 hours of training over 12 months. Training costs vary from school to school but expect it to cost around $26,200 (around £20,000). This covers your tests, exams, flying hours, medicals, equipment, and airfield fees.
Training at Heli Air, one of the UK’s largest Robinson helicopter distributors, will cost you $10,500 (around £8,000). This covers theory in subjects like meteorology, air law, and flight planning. A Class 2 medical is compulsory.
After qualifying, you need an annual review to renew your license. You can opt to expand your qualification to include formation flying and night flying. The choice is yours.
2. Predetermine Your Budget
Design, capacity, and the manufacturer determines a helicopter’s price. Set your budget right from the start. It helps narrow your search.
Just like cars, you will have a range of options. Sloane Helicopters marketing director, Giorgio Bendoni, says first-time buyers can choose from the two-seater, single-piston Robinson R22 to the twin-turbine, eight-seater AgustaWestland Grand. It depends on budget flexibility.
While helicopters are expensive, some are cheaper than a Lamborghini. The Robinson R44, the world’s most famous helicopter, costs only $350,000 (around £313,500) and half that second-hand.
When setting your budget, add maintenance costs too. Some helicopter’s cost more to maintain than others. Lower priced helicopters can cost more in maintenance over the long run.
The AgustaWestland Grand and the AgustaWestland A109 are great in sophistication and space, but with an annual depreciation of five to 10 percent, you may want to weigh your options.
You should also consider the cost of insurance, capital investment, and depreciation.
3. How Far Will You Travel?
Aircraft manufacturers offer similar models with a small tweak in design and performance. Cheaper helicopters are smaller. And this limits the number of people it can carry, fuel capacity, and distance it can travel.
So, you need to decide how many people need to travel in your helicopter regularly. Also look at the distance it can travel before needing to refuel. The H125 is a midrange helicopter that guarantees 300 to 350 miles (ca. 563 km) or 2½ hours without refueling.
4. Other Considerations
The Airbus H160 is a new sleek design marketed to business and private customers, while the H125 has strong competition from the Bell 407. The cabin is separate from the cockpit and is luxurious. It has two seats facing each other and is a great option if you have a pilot. In contrast, an Airbus is a better option with you as the pilot as there is no separation from your passengers.
The choice of interior should reflect the helicopter’s purpose. Some people ignore carpets as it is a lot of work to keep clean. Leather seats are an attractive option as are seats with twin leather stitching which are currently in vogue.
Landing Space is Limited
Landing spaces in London are limited due to their tight restrictions on noise control, which limits helicopter paths. Battersea Heliport is the best place to land and continue your journey using other means. Places you can land outside London include Elstree, Denham, Biggin Hill, and Northolt.
Grab a helicopter landing guide to find somewhere to land in London. It has a list of landing sites around the UK and their phone numbers. This allows you to request landing permission before leaving for your destination. They may let you land for free or for a small fee (around $50).
Terms You Should Know
There are terms you should know if you intend to own a helicopter:
- VFR (Visual Flying Rules) means you have to keep sight of the ground.
- IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) means you can fly above or in the clouds.
- A two-seat piston engine VFR is a basic helicopter.
- ILS (Instrument Landing System) is what you dial into to get to the ground.
- You use a noise-canceling headset for communication.
- Autopilot allows you to control the aircraft without moving the controls and is not available in all helicopters.
Best Places for a Helicopter Tour
February 18, 2019
It may seem excessive, but some places in the world are simply best explored by scenic flight. At many sights and cities of great scale and magnitude, the view from the ground just doesn’t reveal the full picture! Take it from us, each of the following 10 once-in-a-lifetime flights are worth the splurge. Just be sure to grab a window seat.
Victoria Falls, Zambia and Zimbabwe
This two-kilometre sheet of falling water forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, where the Zambezi River plunges into a deep gorge. Seen from the ground, it’s one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls – the water’s mist and rainbows can be seen from over 20 kilometres away – and the view from the air, where the full scale of the falls is apparent, is even more astounding. Entry-level scenic flights concentrate on the falls themselves, but an upgrade gets you further downstream to the Batoka Gorges and a couple of minutes of game spotting in the Zambezi National Park, where elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and giraffes roam.
Who Flies There: United Air Charters operates from Livingstone on Zambia’s side of the falls and offers both long and short flights.
Denali National Park, USA
This remote national park in the far reaches of the Alaska is home to the country’s tallest peak – Mt. McKinley – plus glacial rivers, gorges, taiga forests and alpine tundra environments. Oh, and moose, caribou, grizzly bears and wolves. There’s just one road that winds around the park’s six million acres, so it’s no wonder why many tourists take to the air to cover the most ground. Helicopter or fixed-wing airplane tours allow explorers to see Mt. McKinley and other Alaska Range peaks up close, and most flights include a landing on a glacier for a quick snowball fight.
Who Flies There: Fly Denali is the only company with a permit to land on glaciers within the borders of the national park – other companies land on ice outside of the park’s boundaries.
The Grand Canyon, USA
This famous piece of carved land stretches for 277 river miles as the Colorado River winds through the deserts of Arizona, eroding the earth away up to one mile deep and 18 miles across as it flows along. Most visitors to the Canyon don’t make it past the South Rim, where a road allows for easy access – and crowds. But an airborne trip over the canyon can also include aerial views of the Vegas Strip, the Hoover Dam and the Mojave Desert, and some helicopter companies have permission to land in the canyon for a riverboat ride or a stroll on the adrenaline-rush-inducing Skywalk.
Who Flies There: Sundance Helicopter Tours takes off from Las Vegas and has a special relationship with the canyon’s local Native American tribe.
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The world’s largest coral reef stretches for 2300 kilometres along the coast of Queensland, and there are plenty of tour companies operating from different points on the mainland to visit sites like the outer reaches of the reef, Green Island, the Low Isles, Whitehaven Beach and the Heart Reef. Sharks, turtles and rays can even sometimes be spotted from the air, and some companies include snorkel or dive stops on anchored pontoons. Longer flight paths can also pass over the Daintree Rainforest, the Mossman and Baron gorges and the Cairns Highlands.
Who Flies There: GBRHelicopters offers short scenic flights from Cairns and Port Douglas, reef experiences and personalized tours.
New York City, USA
There may be no better way to get your mind around New York than from the air. The Big Apple can take tourists days to criss-cross and cover, but from above, the city’s grid pattern and distinct neighborhoods become clear. Helicopter tours leave from almost the very southern tip of Manhattan Island and whiz past, at the very least, the iconic Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and views of Lower Manhattan’s skyline which includes the new One World Trade Center building. Longer trips can include the Manhattan, Brooklyn, George Washington and Verrazano-Narrows bridges, Wall Street, the Empire State Building, Central Park, Yankee Stadium and New Jersey’s Palisades cliffs.
Who Flies There: New York Helicopter offers a 25-minute tour that ticks off all of the above NYC must-sees.
Glacier Country, New Zealand
On the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are uniquely positioned between snow-covered mountain tops and sea-level rainforests. The Franz Josef Glacier extends for 12 miles and is one of the fastest moving glaciers on earth, but has been on the retreat for the last several years and is now most easily accessed by helicopter. Heli-tours will include snow landings on either of the glaciers, and some flights will take in both the Fox and the Franz Josef. Upgrades include trips to New Zealand’s highest peak – Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Who Flies There: Alpine Adventures has locations at both the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, and offers tours or either or both glaciers, as well as both Cook and Tasman mountains with landings in Westland National Park.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The granite mountains that surround Rio’s Corcovado Bay, including the iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain and Corcovado with its famous Christ the Redeemer statue, just beg to be seen from above. Not to mention that a flight is the perfect way to survey the in-the-works Olympic Village and the Maracana Stadium where the 2016 Opening Ceremonies will be held. The white strips of the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches just don’t seem that crowded from the air, though the city’s biggest slum – the Rocinha Favela – does.
Who Flies There: Helisight offers tours from six to 60 minutes long leaving from two sites in the city.
The oldest of Hawaii’s islands also hosts one of the state’s most inaccessible interiors – the key to unlocking Kauai’s most beautiful sights lies in the skies above. Flights generally circle most of the island to take in the rugged and remote cliffs of the Na Pali coast, the famous Waimea Canyon (often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific) and the Waialeale Crater with its 5000-foot walls and matching wispy waterfalls. Other popular sites include the Manawaiopuna waterfall which became famous for its appearance in Jurassic Park, and Hanalei Bay.
Who Flies There: Jack Harter Helicopters has been flying around the island since 1962 and offers 60- and 90-minute tours that depart from the Lihue Heliport.
Cape Town, South Africa
Similar to Rio’s geographic propensity for a good helicopter ride, Cape Town’s mountainous coast and striking natural features are the perfect backdrop for a scenic flight. While short itineraries take in views of the city, the flat-topped Table Mountain, the Twelve Apostles and the historic Robben Island, longer trips head south to Noordhoek, Kommetjie and Fish Hoek suburbs, the Cape Point Nature Reserve and Cape Point itself – the southernmost tip of the Cape Peninsula.
Who Flies There: NAC Helicopters offers four different tour itineraries focusing on the immediate and greater city, the area’s major bays and the further reaches of the Cape Peninsula.
The Great Ocean Road, Australia
Some of Australia’s most iconic natural attractions – the Great Ocean Road and its famous rock formations – come alive for those who tackle the cliffy coast from the top down. From land, visitors can drive to a succession of parking lots to view small parts of the coast at a time; the landscape’s jagged erosion makes it impossible to see beyond nearby cliffs in parts. But by air, all becomes apparent. The over 250 kilometres of the road host islands, rainforests, gorges and beaches – typical flights can cover the legendary Twelve Apostles, the Shipwreck Coast, Port Campbell National Park, London Bridge and the Bay of Islands, Cape Otway and the Loch Ard Gorge.